Much of the art that takes the Holocaust as its subject is created by people who had a personal experience with it. Judith Weinshall Liberman was a young girl growing up in what is now Israel during World War II and has said she had no such connection beyond remembering her father's anguish when discussing news that began filtering in about European Jews' horrific plight.
Yet a chord was struck that began resonating strongly 40 years later and led to a large series of Holocaust-related paintings and wall hangings that occupied her for more than a decade beginning in 1987 when she was in her late 50s. The Florida Holocaust Museum has many of them in its permanent collection, and they're now on view in its second-floor galleries.
Most works fall into two groups that Liberman calls maps and scenes. Some scenes are literal narratives — of concentration camp life, for example — and others are more symbolic. The maps are also symbolic but the symbols are used to convey statistics of death and diaspora.
The latter group is more effective in its presentation of devastation, perhaps because the hundreds of photographs available to us of the real people and their suffering are more moving and immediate than paintings of them could be. The most effective scenes are those that use fewer details, such as Boarding, in which a large group of men, women and children stand in front of a boxcar waiting to be loaded. The crowd is huge in proportion to the train car. The faces and bodies are simple shapes, and their near-abstraction illustrates the depersonalization of the experience.
Liberman uses a spare and somber palette of black, gray and red in most of the works. They're obvious choices for death, despair and bloodshed, and I compare them to the work of Samuel Bak, who recently had a show at the museum and who often and effectively infuses his Holocaust-themed paintings with glorious jewel tones.
Limiting color is a good choice for her maps, however, which chronicle the history using numbers and geography and don't need visual distractions in doing so.
In the wall hanging Gypsies, Too, the map of Europe is filled with hands bearing the number of that population who died and reminds us that Jews weren't the only ones persecuted. The hands become a good metaphor for the Gypsies who made much of their livelihood from palm-reading and fortune-telling but whose own fates passed into the hands of others.
For 2000 Years, Liberman uses Gothic lettering to date the numerous Jewish communities established over millennia, many of which were wiped out in less than a decade.
She uses screened photographs on many of the wall hangings. Two designed as prayer shawls have such images, of real confiscated shawls on one and of burned Torahs on another.
This exhibition is enhanced by the inclusion of paintings unrelated to the Holocaust. They are of animal skulls created, she says in the wall label, during a course she took in 1971, using oil instead of the acrylic she switched to. Several of them show the influence of Georgia O'Keeffe's cow skulls, and two of turtle skulls are sculptural and abstract. They show her skill simply as a painter without a didactic motive.
Liberman first trained to become a lawyer; she holds two law degrees, from the University of Chicago and University of Michigan. Living in Boston in her mid 30s, she studied art and began painting in earnest at that time. Now in her 80s, she has become a playwright, too. She is a person of protean intelligence and prodigious talent and has used both to explore a subject that will continue to haunt human history with the question: How could we let this happen?
But I am conflicted by art that can't be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level, which is true of many historical paintings. Is its main purpose to educate and remind us? If a viewer knew nothing of the Holocaust, the way this art is seen would be a different experience with different criteria.
Consider Picasso's Guernica, painted in direct response to the bombing of a Spanish village during the Spanish Civil War. Most people who see it today don't know its literal context; they only know they are witnessing a scene of senseless death, violence and desolation that can be grasped and understood universally. Guernica's destruction was a minor event by war standards, yet the painting commemorating it has made a more pervasive statement about evil and senseless annihilation than any other dealing with bigger subjects. It's one of the few works of art I can think of that effectively commemorates a specific event and universalizes it. (Worth noting is that no great art has yet emerged dealing with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.)
Art like Liberman's should be valued in the same way we value all meaningful responses to tragedy. I also believe that art like this is better served in group shows in which the artistic responses are varied and individual. They represent the truth we need to remember: In the mind-numbing numbers of the Holocaust, each one represents an individual death.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.